Sunday, 12 April 2015

On Reaching a Certain Age

This is the 23,741st day of my life.* One more day of grace. Today is the Ides of April.** More personally, I reach the emblematic age of sixty-five. I can now draw my state pension.

Sixty-five doesn’t carry the significance it once did. Gone are the days when you would be summoned to the MD’s office on your birthday to be given a carriage clock (an eloquent symbol of mortality?), a slice of cake, listen to farewell speeches of varying sincerity and be toasted with a glass of bubbly. Some retire earlier, many later. As readers of this blog know, I am staying on for a few more months. I am not ready to become history just yet. But when that day comes later this year, I don’t think, somehow, that I shall spend my days pruning my roses. There are fresh ways in which I hope I can be useful in retirement to church and wider community. Who knows?

But this is not a blog about retirement. What today marks for me has more to do with the prospect of ageing or, as we used to say, growing old gracefully. And in that respect, this does feel like a significant threshold even if not perhaps a momentous one. It’s reinforced by two other anniversaries that coincide with this 65th year: having been forty years an ordained minister, and twenty as a dean. As I look back, I realise how hugely life has changed during the time I have been ordained, not least in the nation’s religious attitudes and in the culture of the church itself.
I've set aside some months after finishing full-time public ministry to reflect on two things. The first is what other roles might be awaiting me in the ‘third age’, however short or long it may be. That’s the retirement question. The other, is more important: what the years ahead will mean for physical, personal and spiritual health, for the deepening of intimate relationships, for creativity and the enjoyment of life’s gifts, and for journeying purposefully into truth and into God. This feels like an unknown region for now. It will need negotiating with care and self-awareness with the help of those with I am fortunate enough to travel with on this journey of being a human being and a Christian.

‘Old age’ can be a rich and fertile time of life. We know this from those we see flourishing in their sixties, seventies and eighties. Clergy are privileged to have a lot to do with those whom we call ‘senior’. It is wonderful when the elderly flourish, giving so much to church and society through volunteering and the sharing of their lifetime’s experience. There is a beautiful wisdom that comes with age that the Bible, like all ancient civilisations, prizes highly. There are the pleasures in spending time with the young – our grandchildren if we are fortunate to have them, but, as I have also discovered here in Durham through my involvement with choir and school, many others as well. There is the gift of time to reflect on the world in new ways, cultivate the imagination, become more of a contemplative. I hope I can appreciate more and more the sheer wonder of being alive. These are all things I look forward to and hope to have time to enjoy.
It's not so wonderful when we see elderly people who have become diminished through pain, bereavement, suffering and disability, or by the more imperceptible ways life shuts down through disappointment, loneliness, loss of hope or physical weakness. Clergy spend much time with the vulnerable, sick and dying. I wonder how well I would – may have to – cope with the loss of my faculties, failing memory, dementia, incontinence or loss of physical function. I ask myself how gracious I would – may have to – be if I were to become dependent on other people for everyday tasks I don’t even think about right now: communicating, eating and drinking, personal hygiene, getting around. What if I could no longer watch a sunset, read a book, walk the fells or listen to the music of Bach? These disabilities are not unique to age, of course. But every year that passes makes them more likely.

And today as I flip the calendar, I can’t help being sharply aware that an even more daunting threshold awaits. One day it will be time to say farewell to this life. There is no evading the hard truth about mortality. It doesn’t do, the nearer we come to dying, to pretend any more. Philip Larkin’s chillingly great poem ‘Aubade’ plays with our ambivalence as we contemplate ‘unresting death, a whole day nearer now’. ‘“Most things may never happen”: this one will.’ He criticised religion, ‘that great moth-eaten musical brocade / Invented to pretend we never die’ – a brilliant trope, if a cruel judgment on the gospel that has sustained me for a lifetime. But I have learned a lot contemplating that poem. It’s been in my mind since a close colleague and friend dies suddenly before Easter. He was four years younger than me. It has concentrated my thoughts. As the seventeenth century Bishop Jeremy Taylor knew when he wrote his two classics Holy Living and Holy Dying, it's important to think about your own death, and how you intend to live the rest of your life in the light of that certainty.
I have a hunch that symbolically, to turn sixty-five makes it more difficult to ignore – at least, if I want to live the last phase of life honestly, wisely, thankfully and well. And of course joyfully and Christianly – ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead’ as the funeral service puts it. The Ides of April sometimes fall in Lent, sometimes in the Easter season. This year it’s Eastertide. That helps my thoughts on ‘reaching a certain age’ to be shaped in the light of Christian hope, which is how we should always think about ageing, mortality and death. It's hope in Christ crucified and risen that illuminates each day we are given to enjoy and grow old in. While we live it makes us wise, and generous, brave, loving and good. And when the end comes, as the hymn says, ‘it takes its terror from the grave / and gilds the bed of death with light’.

Meanwhile, I shall spend much of this 65th birthday on a train with my wife travelling to the other end of England for a conference. A kairos threshold embedded in ordinary time. There’ll be plenty of opportunity to gaze out of the window and ponder landscapes as they hurry by and think the thoughts that emerge. 'Each a glimpse then gone forever.' An apt metaphor of life.

*23,741 = 365 x 65 + 16. The sixteen are for the leap years.**Ides on 13th of every month except 15th March, May, July and October.



  1. Happy birthday, Mr Dean. And thank you for having sponsored the new history of the cathedral which, like the other Yale cathedral history of St Paul's, is a superb volume.

  2. Many Happy Returns. Only sorry that Durham won't be having another five years of your exemplary leadership at the cathedral. It was my privilege to be in the cathedral on Low a Sunday to hear your superbly crafted sermon on St. Thomas, our Twin. By the way I think the cathedral website has posted the wrong sermon under this title? Do please post your Low Sunday sermon on Thomas on the website so that we can all appreciate and enjoy this wonderful Easter sermon. Many Thanks